AUSTIN — After a summer of uncertainty, Democrats are feeling better about the prospect of former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke challenging incumbent Republican Greg Abbott for governor.
The expectation that O’Rourke will run against Abbott is a turnabout from earlier this year, when it seemed unlikely that the El Paso Democrat would embark on a third major campaign in four years. O’Rourke has been seeking input from Democrats and others about challenging Abbott, said David Wysong, an adviser to the former congressman.
Recent polls show Abbott with new vulnerabilities. The governor has been criticized for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, blamed in part for the February winter storm that crippled Texas with power outages and attacked by Democrats and some independents for promoting a controversial elections bill and a law that practically outlaws abortions in Texas. Republican voters in reliably red Texas, however, support Abbott’s policies.
A new poll by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler reveals that 54% of Texas voters feel the state is headed in the wrong direction, including 64 percent of folks who identify as independents. Abbott’s approval rating, which before this year was always sterling, is down to 45 percent.
O’Rourke’s numbers are nothing to brag about either. His approval rating is at 42%. The polls shows he trails Abbott in a hypothetical matchup for governor by a 42%-37% margin.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke speaks during his For the People, The Texas Drive for Democracy event on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, at Paul Quinn College in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)
But Abbott’s five-point lead over O’Rourke is the closest a Democratic candidate for governor has been since Ann Richards won in 1990. And the governor’s reelection campaign is preparing as if O’Rourke is ready to rumble.
“With Beto O’Rourke preparing his run for Governor, ALL EYES are going to be on Texas,” Abbott’s campaign team wrote in a fundraiser email that warned GOP donors that O’Rourke is a fundraising juggernaut.
But O’Rourke is moved by more than poll numbers.
During his unsuccessful but close 2018 race against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, as well as his brief 2020 bid for president, O’Rourke told crowds that it was critical to do everything possible to resist the policies of then President Donald Trump.
He said Texans had the chance to lead the nation by developing sensible immigration and economic policies. He talked about Democrats and Republicans coming together for the good of Texas and the nation, which would require setting aside petty politics and incorporation everyone in our democracy.
More poignantly, O’Rourke wondered aloud what he would tell his children and grandchildren, when they asked him what he did to help heal the nation during the era of Trump?
Those speeches are relevant today because O’Rourke and others believe Texas is at a tipping point.
Perhaps more than being a senator, or even a president, the job of governor provides more of an opportunity to impact the lives of Texans and shape how the state is perceived.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, answers a question after signing HB9 into law during a press conference at the Fort Worth Police Officers Association headquarters on Friday September 17, 2021. (Robert W. Hart/Special Contributor)(Robert W. Hart / Special Contributor)
If O’Rourke really believes Abbott is driving the state into a ditch, he has to challenge Abbott, win or lose.
That’s good news for his fans because O’Rourke is the only known Texas Democrat who can raise the money, craft the message and use the organization and oratory skills needed to threaten Abbott.
O’Rourke will have to come up with a second statewide act if he runs for governor. Challenging Abbott is far different than his tussle with Cruz, the race that made him a household name in Texas.
But his fundraising ability alone makes him a threat, and will take some pressure off down-ballot Democrats.
It’s Beto or bust for Texas Democrats.
By now O’Rourke haters have fired off emails or tweeted at me about how the former congressman doesn’t have a chance and that the media is preparing to hype him up.
It is true that O’Rourke has an uphill battle and will likely lose a statewide matchup against Abbott, or somebody like Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey, who hasn’t ruled out running for governor. The actor could run as a Republican.
Texas is a red state.
After the 2020 elections, Republicans maintained firm control of the state by holding their majorities in the Texas House and Senate, as well as the Lone Star delegation to Congress. That occurred after proclamations, including in this column, that Texas is a battleground state.
Additionally, O’Rourke doesn’t have the same appeal to many residents that he had in his race against Cruz.
His crossover appeal and $80 million campaign fund propelled him to within 2.6 percentage points of beating Cruz. In the process he pushed Democrats to wins in numerous in-district races. They won 12 Texas House seats, mostly in North Texas. And Colin Allred of Dallas and Lizzie Fletcher of Houston won congressional races that helped Democrats retake the U.S. House and reinstall Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.
But O’Rourke’s rising stardom peaked after his battle with Cruz. In 2020 he ran for president, but had to suspend his campaign well before the Iowa caucuses. His presidential bid revealed progressive stances that could hurt him with some voters in Texas, including his pledge to confiscate assault-style weapons like the AR-15 rifle, if given the chance.
Vice presidential candidate Joe Biden joins Beto and Amy O’Rourke at Whataburger in Dallas after Beto O’Rourke endorsed Biden for the Democratic nomination for president in Dallas on Monday, March 2.(Michael Hamtil)
Most Republicans, and likely some independents, could find his immigration proposals and stands on social issues too liberal for Texas.
Then there’s President Joe Biden. The News’ poll shows his approval rating in Texas mired at 40% and only 29% approve of his management of the southern border with Mexico.
Running against Abbott also creates a personal political risk for O’Rourke. If he calls out Abbott and loses, that would be three high-profile defeats in four years. Such a record could impact his ability to run for statewide offices in future years, including 2024, when Cruz is up for reelection. Cruz may run for president in 2024, leaving the Senate seat open.
If O’Rourke has any thoughts about losing, he has to put them aside.
The moment requires that he enters the political arena as a candidate for governor.
What happens after that is up to Texas voters.